Sunday, October 6, 2013

Later on Decatur

Po Boy Views


Phil LaMancusa

Flying Outside The Envelope


Later on Decatur

I first came to Decatur Street in 1967. I had stolen someone’s wife and we hitched thirteen hundred miles south and landed in New Orleans knowing damned little about what we were doing. We were treated to Orange Julius’ on Bourbon Street, given a place to ‘crash’ and turned loose on the city. At the time, Decatur Street was stomping grounds for a lot of people of my mind-set, if not my circumstances and atypical, amoral inclinations. Fools all.

The Greek places (Athenian Room, Acropolis), with belly dancers for the stevedores and merchant seamen; sailor bars like La Casa de Los Marinos (now Café Maspero) with regularly scheduled pandemonium and pugilism set to live Latin music; strippers popping seconal like candy and challenging whole saloons to ‘step outside’, (“Ya Mahtha F**kas!”); that Chinese joint run by the Dragon Lady; Jax Brewery in full swing by the Square and a moonlight artist named Napoleon Rex hustling paintings and dames. Café Du Monde for late nighters, (across from the liquor store) abutting fish markets where you could get your shrimp shelled for a buck a pound.  The street was lined with shops and supplies for the blue collar/no collar workers; laundries; hardware; chandlers; work clothes; haberdasheries and hangouts. Cheap restaurants, saloons, groceries and rooms by the week for a sawbuck. A speed freak named Tinkerbell eating Vicks inhalers and drinking rain water from a down spout; Manila Joe (ex-prizefighter) slinging pairs of Yos.  Morning Call with the parking out front and the ‘colored’ entrance in the back. The French Market teeming with produce goons 24/7; watermelons rhythmically unloaded; kids asleep on flatbed trucks; Fiorello’s selling booze for breakfast and that gay couple who ran a bohemian coffee house called Phoenix that didn’t open until late. Down by Ursuline there were abandoned buildings and cheap digs. A young girl, known only as Spookie, with far away eyes; Raspberry Mahogany smoking Camel straights and quoting Rimbaud.

  Not much after that, when I made the round trip back, the ‘counterculture’ had taken over The Quarter like a rash; Communes, eateries, free clinics, seers and diggers and underground newspapers being sold to drunks. Babe Stovall in the Square playing the blues while poets played chess and kids munched Morning Glory seeds to take them higher.

Hippies sweeping the streets; Mike Stark and Kumi Maitreya; Shambala and Cruz opening shops on the corners of Barracks. On Decatur you could always find monkey business, mutiny and mischief. Pot selling for a hundred a pound and young girls making ends meet by posing nude for pervs that were rented filmless cameras. Narcos looking to make busts. Lovers looking to meld. Marshall on the make. That small theater on Madison. Dino returning from ‘busting a script’ at Walgreens on Canal; refugees from Kent State; Volkswagens returning from red beans at Buster’s for four bits. Ne’er do wells and numbskulls; neighbors, knickerettes, Nunzios and Nancys  on larks and out of order. Bucks and beards; peasant skirts and peace pipes. Wharf rats, weirdoes, winos and wayward wunderkind.

 We stayed indoors when the MDA family came to town, hung out at Napoleon’s Retreat with Janis on the box and steered clear of the Seven Seas (La Siete Mares) unless Big Luke was with us. Guitar solos coming from a club called the Bank and Tink in traffic raving like a gibbon. The best Muffaletta was hot from the oven at Mom’s next to the ice house and truckers unloading shrimp with snow shovels fresh up from the bayou, feral cats keeping down the rodent population and an old black man skinning a possum. You could walk the docks from here to Jackson Avenue and never set foot on pavement.  We had earned our lives and were freely spending in the coin of the realm: nothing in moderation.

Now when I walk down Decatur I’m blue. After dark the area looks like a midway and smells like horse, homeless sleep in doorways; Decatur is carnival lit and the market resembles (a cheap roadside stand by day) an empty prison yard.

The only area reminiscent of that past; where the zest, gusto and a certain joie de vivre lives on is in the last blocks before you hit Esplanade, what is called

‘lower Decatur’ by the foot of Frenchmen Street .On lower Decatur you’ll find joints and establishments embracing the funk of those yesteryears for which I wax reflective.

Sidebar: {not  many locals can afford to live in that area and frankly speaking, being real now, if a friggin’ Subway or Starbucks decided to pony up, any landlord on that street would sell out. Sic transit Gloria mundi.}

My experience of Decatur Street is transitory at best; but, my instinct as a tribal member persists.

The tribes moved on to Frenchmen Street and the Faubourg Marigny; what was a locals treasure has now become public domain. Residents that have been priced out have moved into the Bywater and now the Bywater is the new Marigny just as the Marigny was the Technicolor version of my noir Decatur Street. (Whew, you need a scorecard to keep up with the diasporas.) Surely I miss when the tribe lived in proximity, but what are you gonna do? Wander until you find them. Catch up. Dragons, dreams, delights, dangers, delusions and self deception.” If that’s all there is, then let’s keep dancing...”

Like missing pieces to a puzzle, the Decatur Streets of my life have formed the jigsaw of who I have become, will become. Self-effacing selfish sleepwalker shadow strutting string-puppet pulled along other paths, lured by the elusive temptations of lyrics, libations and love’s false promises. Chaos, confusion, compassion, experience, exposure and the eight bar changes of Professor Longhair.  All later, on my Decatur.




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